Carbon Offsets a Fraud?

  • Posted by tim
  • 9 September 2008

by Claire Fauset & Merrick

Future Forests, rock legend has it, was first conceived of around Joe Strummer's campfire at Glastonbury 1997. The Strummer/Glastonbury connection gave the company the kudos to break into the mainstream. Strummer's tree plantation, 'Rebel Woods', is the first of many 'celebrity forests'. You can now also dedicate a tree in the Atomic Kitten forest, or help offset the greenhouse gas emissions of the Super Furry Animals.

But, as Geldof's performance at the G8 proved, you can't trust a rock star to have a political opinion on your behalf. The late rock legend may have slammed pop stars for 'turning rebellion into money' , but as the man who sold a Clash song to a Levis advert it should come as no surprise that his solutions to climate change were somewhat less than revolutionary.

Future Forests (now The CarbonNeutral Company) and Climate Care are two UK companies pioneering carbon offsets, the practice of planting trees or funding energy efficiency projects to 'neutralise' the burning of fossil fuels. Among those concerned about climate change, the idea is catching on in a big way.

Having declared itself serious about the onset of climate change, in April The Independent published a piece on 'How To Fly Around The World Without Costing The Earth' promoting the idea of using aircraft and then paying people to plant trees as carbon offsets.

CAN'T SEE THE EMISSIONS FOR THE TREES

There are huge problems with the idea. Simple measuring of emissions is not enough; as aircraft emit at altitude, their impact is around three times as bad as if it were done on the ground.

The emission is instant, whereas a tree only absorbs it over a period of many years. Emissions avoided now have an effect now. Emissions made now and offset will have a negative impact for years until the tree has absorbed them.

It's impossible to say how much carbon a tree will store, so you cannot know how many trees to plant for your emissions. Beyond that, its not straightforward finding out what your emissions are; figures on offset websites for, say, per mile driven usually don't take into account your mpg or how many passengers to divide it among. Figures for a train journey should surely be different if it's a packed rushour train compared to a mid afternoon one with only half a dozen of you on board.

But if finding out about your emissions is convoluted, finding out how many tress to plant is actually impossible. There are things to be subtracted from the offsets. You cant measure the carbon released when the land is cleared for treeplanting. Last years astonishing revelation that trees emit methane (a greenhouse gas more than 20 times as powerful as CO2) alters the sums too. But we dont know how much methane a tree emits. Moreover, methane emission increases as temperatures rise, so as global warming worsens the methane emission vs carbon absorption balance tips and forests have a decreasing impact on mitigating.

Even if a figure could be given for each tree, there's a problem of just counting the number of trees planted. You cant just measure the project you label as an offset; you have to be able to calculate exactly how much of an improvement over "business as usual" youre making, and there are huge disputes raging over these calculations.

For example, to buy the 'carbon rights' in a tree the companies expect only to pay a small portion of the 5 cost of planting and maintaining it. So, can customers be confident that their tree would not have been planted without 'offset' money? Some offset projects have been buying land that's cheap, clearing existing mixed woodland trees and replacing them with their monoculture plantations; you have to subtract the old forests effect from the new plantation, leaving negligible if any benefit on emissions and a big loss to wildlife.

Whilst all these things are serious points, they only show why offsets are clumsy and ineffective.

OFFSETS AIDING THE DESTROYERS

There is a bigger more disturbing truth, that paying for offsets lets us think we can all carry on with our unsustainable high consumption lifestyles, and climate change will go away if we just stick a bit of cash in the right direction. Were we to face the facts that offsets don't really work, we would be forced to concede the reduction on emissions so urgently needed.

Planting trees and energy efficiency are important things to do in themselves, but linking them to offset programmes takes us no further forwards in reducing emissions. If anything, it takes us backwards, as corporations are able to ride on the image boost of appearing greener.

With its re-brand as The CarbonNeutral Company, Future Forests is shedding its roots and going for the big money to be made from helping corporations get a green image on the cheap. It has moved away from simply providing a way of donating to tree planting, to helping businesses to fully understand the opportunities, as well as the risks, presented by carbon emissions, through its carbon consulting, risk management and marketing communications work.

British Airways announced in September 2005 that customers booking through its website would be invited to make their flights 'climate neutral' with Climate Care. By putting the onus on the consumer, BA neatly avoids any obligation or cost for the emissions from its flights. Its like a factory tipping toxic waste into an adjacent river and then asking customers to volunteer money for the clean up. Worse, they claim this is good ethical behaviour and get PR benefits from it at no cost to themselves. At the same time the aviation industry in the UK receives a 9 billion a year tax break, and continues to lobby against tax on aviation fuel, and for airport expansion.

Honda is offering its buyers one month's free carbon offset through The CarbonNeutral Company. But what is one months 'offset' in comparison to the emissions over the lifespan of the car? What benefit to the climate is there in painting a car company as a market leader in environmental protection?

Even if offsets were a scientifically credible solution, we would have to plant an area of new trees the size of Devon and Cornwall every year and maintain them forever if we were to 'neutralise' all UK carbon emissions.

OFFSETTING EMISSIONS IS IMPOSSIBLE

'Carbon neutral' implies that an exact estimation of both carbon emitted and carbon locked up (or 'sequestered'), is possible and verifiable. It also implies that the carbon sequestered in trees is equivalent to the coal/gas carbon extracted from deep in the earth.

The first of these assumptions is highly contested; and the second is just plain wrong. Claiming that carbon stored by trees is safely locked away, as it was under the earth, is simply not true.

This is where we hit the biggest and most disturbing truth of the matter, the thing that makes all the above points largely academic. You can't offset carbon emissions. Its a simple as that.

Burning fossil fuels adds CO2 to the carbon cycle. Trees merely store some of it for a while before releasing it once they rot or burn. They're not an offset, merely a delaying device.

As Oliver Rackham said, it's like drinking more water to keep down rising sea levels. Its not surprising that offsets are being so fervently promoted by those whose activities have to stop if were going to stabilise the climate. The airlines and oil companies want to find any way to carry on, and anything that looks plausible will do even if, like carbon offsets, it is a complete fraud.

The wish to avoid actually changing the things we've come to rely on is understandable, but it's effectively a blindfold we're putting on to tell ourselves we're not facing what's in front of us as we walk toward the cliff edge.

This is an expanded version of an article originally published by Corporate Watch Here's the site.